One of Africa’s best kept secrets and fondly referred to as the African Galápagos, the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe in the Gulf of Guinea form part of a volcanic chain that showcases striking rock and coral formations, rainforests and golden beaches. They are also home to a collection of exceptional eco-hotels.
As written for Amadi.Travel.
Remote, eco-friendly and largely untouched
Even the most avid traveller will look on with envy at the mention of a trip to São Tomé and Príncipe. Officially named the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, or São Tomé Islands for short, this archipelago in the Gulf of Guinea sits approximately 300 km off Africa’s west coast. Made up of two major islands surrounded by eight small islets, of which 6 are inhabited, it has a population of around 150,000 and is the smallest country in Africa.
On the larger island of São Tomé is the Lagoa Azul lagoon, or the Blue Lagoon, in a small bay in the north that forms part of the Obô Natural Park. Just 4 km northwest of the town Guadalupe, it is an increasingly popular spot for scuba diving and snorkelling. Ôbo itself, a biodiverse, lush verdant green jungle, covers much of the landmass and is distinguished by Pico Cão Grande, a skyscraper-like towering volcanic rock.
As the smaller of the two major islands, Príncipe to the north has an area of 136 square kilometres and a population of approximately 7,000. The island is a heavily eroded volcano speculated to be over three million years old.
These islands were uninhabited when discovered by Portuguese navigators in 1470 and under Portuguese colonial rule plantations were started on the island. As there were no villages or towns outside the tiny port of Santo António at the time, these roças became the centres of the population with on-site schools and hospitals.
The islands gained independence in 1975 and somewhat ‘abandoned’ by the Portuguese, subsequent years saw the roças turned to atmospheric ruins and most islanders to subsistence farming. That is until the recent significant revival of the community and São Tomé and Príncipe through impact tourism.
Beyond Green, the HBD story
In 2011 South African entrepreneur, Mark Shuttleworth who had recognised the potential of the area, acquired 7 concessions across the São Tomé and Príncipe islands: Bom Bom, Macaco, Boi, Paciência, Praia Grande, Uba and Sundy. His plan was to kick-start an ambitious eco-tourism project under the name Here Be Dragons (HBD), which he did, re-naturalising the areas and creating various sustainable hotel models. Praia Grande, however, Principe’s largest beach, was set aside as a protected area for turtle conservation.
HBD has worked with the local government and communities to establish a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that ensures the protection in perpetuity. Recent years have seen a recovery of the twin-island’s cocoa industry and they are again living up to their name as the ‘Chocolate Islands’. With their distinctively West African feel and strong Portuguese influence setting them apart, here is a destination unlike any other in East and Southern African experiences.
Unique lodges of the world
Under the HBD Principe custodianship are four exceptional accommodation options. On Principe Island find Sundy Praia – recognised as a National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, Roça Sundy and Bom Bom, with Omali on São Tomé. Sundy Praia provides the perfect balance of natural design and comfort with fifteen tented villas built using locally sourced timber to mimic the simple fishing huts that once stood here. Set on the edge of the ocean and surrounded by tropical forest, they have spacious outdoor decks, some private plunge pools.
Nature and style are matched by the original vaulted bamboo-and thatch ceiling in the dining area. Reminiscent in style of Bali’s famed Bambu Indah eco-hotel, this deep immersion into the natural environment and the meals prepared with local organic produce, ensures a truly unforgettable experience. While most of the old Roças have been absorbed back into the local communities, Roça Sundy is a lovingly restored plantation house that has been transformed into an affordable guesthouse comprising just fifteen en-suite rooms.
Bon Bon, a small tropical islet hidden amongst tropical forests with its own paradisiacal beaches has 19 comfortable rooms with either a pool, garden or sea view. From here step right off your veranda onto the beach. Omali, meaning ‘ocean’ and ‘source of life’ speaks of the hotel’s perfect location next to the Lagarto beach, yet only 1.5 kms from the airport. An ideal base on São Tomé, these tastefully decorated rooms surrounded by lovely grounds with an excellent restaurant and large pool, are ideal for families and business travellers.
The islands have an abundance of natural products with their forests filled with fruit and nuts and waters brimming with tuna and Wahoo. Inspired by this natural larder, the international chefs refine the best of the island’s produce and traditions to create seasonal menus that burst with original flavours.
Exploring the islands, coast, communities and culture
Visit Santa Joaquina’s largest Roça – Plantation House, with its Cape Verdean traces. Walk in the thick verdant green forests of towering trees with the volcanic rock outcrops stretching up towards the sky, specifically in the Bay of Needles best known for its phonolite towers. On Principe Island accompany the monitoring team on a turtle watch excursion as they record where they lay their eggs on the beaches, while gaining a better understanding of the conservation efforts in place to protect this threatened species. This is usually between September and April.
Boat trips are particularly popular along the west side of the National Park and offer excellent views towards the islands. Other activities include hiking, scuba diving, snorkelling, stand-up paddleboarding and cycling tours. Bird watching on São Tomé and Príncipe rewards richly with the islands home to a recorded 143 birds species. The old hospital ruins are a popular attraction, and if you’d like to fully immerse into the region’s culinary flavours, consider a cooking class. Their wellbeing programs speak to the surrounds and are an ideal way to connect with yourself. Alternately, simply soak up the sun on the golden beaches and marvel at the wilderness.
A naturalist’s promised land
Islands are special places for naturalists as their isolation has allowed unique species to evolve and adapt, as was discovered by Darwin and Wallace’s after their time spent documenting the species on the islands of Galápagos. São Tomé and Príncipe are no different with dozens of fish, amphibians, snakes and bats specific to the archipelago. New species turn up regularly with the more recent being the Príncipe shrew and the São Tomé cobra. This in an area an eighth of the size and far less studied than the Galapagos, that is known to have the same number of recorded endemics.
What we love about São Tomé and Príncipe
Once on the islands, it’s as though time doesn’t exist – or simply has a new meaning.
Nature is the champion and we love how everything grows with such a force here, something that can be witnessed in the enormity and intense luxuriance of the forests and trees.
The colourful, eccentric and characterful people who call the island home, their vibrant annual festivals, warm welcome and proud ownership. The island’s unique and fascinating natural crops which can be explored for their aroma, texture and flavours, inspiring you to want to nurture, protect and grow. Learning about HBD’s farming practices under the watchful eye of their resident agronomists.
The ingrained and visionary sustainability practices upheld by HBD Principe that are ensuring the island’s future as a sought after African island destination. As well as their focus on high-value low volume tourism, an ethos that will protect the country’s natural treasures, it’s community and unique culture.
São Tomé and Príncipe speak to the emotions, offering a sensory celebration and dream-like existence that’s preserved in the magic of the surrounds. All so easily enjoyed from the luxury of your accommodation.
São Tomé and Príncipe are serviced by regular flights from Europe and mainland Africa, with 6-hour direct flights from Lisbon on TAP Air Portugal and STP Airways – the island’s national carrier. TAAG Angola Airlines operates flights from Luanda, with connections from Accra operated by TAP and from Libreville operated by Afrijet. Once in São Tomé, link by 35-minute flight to Príncipe with STP Airways. To do the destination and both São Tomé and Príncipe islands justice, at least a 5-7 night’s stay is recommended.
This experience is recommended by AMADI. AMADI is an eco-responsible luxury travel agency that develops tours and safaris across Africa for travellers who adhere to a form of tourism that respects natural spaces. A stay in São Tomé and Príncipe can be easily integrated into an itinerary linking the archipelago to other parts of Southern Africa on sustainability-oriented itineraries.
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Feast on this collection of pics supplied by HBD Principe as you dream of visiting.
Caption. The wooden walkway to the beach on Bom Bom Island.
Captions. 1. A softly lit path leads towards the rooms and luxury villas at Sundy Praia. 2. Sundy Praia’s luxury bathroom that opens to the surrounding rain forest. 3. Sundy Praia’s infinity pool with day bed and views towards the ocean. 4. The impressive bamboo and thatch ceiling in the dining area at Sundy Praia.
1. The softly lit and warmly welcoming Roca Sundy homestead.
2. The chic bar at Roca Sundy is the perfect place to gather after a day of exploring the island. 3. One of the large and classically themed plantation rooms as Roca Sundy. 4. Alfresco dining in Roca Sundy’s expansive garden.
1. Principe’s tropical island bliss, as far as the eye can see. 2. The beautiful cacao pod, a crop that gave the name ‘Chocolate Islands’. 3. Turtle hatchlings making their way towards the water on Praia Grande, Principe island. 4. An aerial view of the verdant green palm trees, golden sands and turquoise waters synonymous with the islands. 5. One of the many roça ruins so worthy of exploration. 6. The indulgent breakfast buffet at Omali. 7. A group of vibrant and proud island women pose for a photograph. 8. Omali’s pool, set in lush grounds, makes an ideal place to retreat to.